When My Brother Was an Aztec
(This piece first appeared in the Lumina Journal blog of Sarah Lawrence College on 2/20/15)
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
These poems will give you vertigo: your ears will throb, your head will gyrate with images of unruly beasts and mesmerizing ancient gods, your mouth will fill with a rich lexicon that is wildly imaginative. These poems are at once raw and sophisticated. Savagery has never been so beautiful. Redemption never seemed so close and then so far.
In this dizzying and highly accomplished first book, (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), Diaz’s main concern is her brother’s drug addiction and its impact on her family. Other poems deal more broadly with growing up on a Mojave Indian reservation and struggles with personal identity.
These poems are highly physical, with hyenas morphing to men, graphic depictions of bodily wounds inherent in a life of addiction; her brother’s drug-fueled hallucinations become the reality of these poems.
Diaz invokes seemingly every deity and philosopher in an attempt to frame her experience, placing in one poem “a broken Borges and a gouged Saint Lucia, hand in hand.” Her epigraphs include a Confucian scholar, Whitman, Lorca, Rimbaud, Szymborska and the Qur’an. The characters in this gory glorious Greek tragedy include hawks and elephants; Houdini and Antigone; Adam and Eve; Barbie; and Huitzilopochtli, a god that’s half-man, half-hummingbird.
The forms vary tremendously in this layered, textured collection: from regular indented prose paragraphs, to couplet, tercets, letters, list poems, an abecedarian poem and a poem that deftly integrates Native American culture with Christianity in six syllables. But throughout is the relentless, urgent voice of witness, at times reflective, often frantic, imploring the reader to enter her world, see what she sees, touch what she feels. And while there is anger, there is also great tenderness, especially as she describes the noble attempts of her parents to manage through the impossible.
In “A Brother Named Gethsemane,” Diaz opens with: “Naked blue boy put down your pipe. They found your shoes in the meadow. Mom’s and Dad’s hearts are overripe” and ends with “This is no garden. This is my brother and I need a shovel to love him.”